Whaling: Scientists Fire Harpoon Into Japan’s Research Claims

Since 1987, the year it implemented the IWC moratorium, Japan has killed 8,321 whales under its scientific programme, 7,900 of them minkes, according to figures published last Thursday in the British science journal Nature.

Paris (AFP) Jun 19, 2005 Japan’s claims that solid science underpins its whaling programme stir reactions ranging from polite silence to dismay and undisguised ridicule from marine biologists and conservationists.

Scientific research has been invoked by Japan to let it continue whale hunts after it reluctantly agreed in 1986 to a moratorium on commercial whaling.

And, Japan argues, scientific evidence is also at the heart of its proposals, put to this week’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Ulsan, South Korea, to double its annual take in the Southern Ocean, an area designated a whale sanctuary.

But scientists say Japan’s research is sketchy or spurious and tainted by conflict of interest – for whalemeat supposedly caught for scientific ends is sold on the market, an income estimated at between 38 and 50 million dollars a year.

As for Japan’s plans to boost its catch, scientists warn there are so many unknowns about whales – genetic diversity, migratory patterns, vulnerability to global warming being just a few – that some species which are slowly recovering could be quickly put on the skids if hunting is expanded on this scale.

Under Article VIII of the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, countries can issue permits for the killing of whales to advance scientific knowledge.

But there are no limits on “scientific” catches, and the type of research is not specified or subject to IWC approval.

The Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research has indeed cranked out reams of papers under Article VIII, but experts say the work is of negligible value.

The studies especially sidestep the IWC’s key questions: how many whales constitute a safe level for sustainable hunting and how should whaling be managed?

In 2003, Scott Baker of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Phillip Clapham of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, trawled through more than 150 publications by Japan’s scientific whaling programme.

They found that just a single study dealt with the IWC’s assessment needs and was published in an international peer-reviewed journal – the benchmark of scientific credibility.

“There’s been a large amount of documents produced (by the Japanese) that have been submitted to the IWC’s scientific committee. Most of these have been of general descriptive material and not directly related to management of whaling or whale populations,” Justin Cooke, a cetacean specialist at the World Conservation Union (IUCN), told AFP.

“It’s pretty clear why it’s done – it’s the only legal means for going whaling.”

Since 1987, the year it implemented the IWC moratorium, Japan has killed 8,321 whales under its scientific programme, 7,900 of them minkes, according to figures published last Thursday in the British science journal Nature.

That is nearly four times the total of whales killed by every other nation for scientific research since 1952.

Japan now wants to double its annual catch of Antarctic minke whales from about 440 to 935 and to expand “lethal sampling” to include an additional yearly take in the Southern Ocean of 50 humpback and 50 fin whales, which are listed internationally as vulnerable and endangered species respectively.

Its position is supported by whaling nations Iceland and Norway, who share Japan’s contention that whaling is a cultural tradition.

On the scientific front, Japan argues that species of whales that are rising in numbers need to be controlled in order to protect fish stocks for humans.

According to one of its studies, each year just half of the 75 species of cetaceans eat as much as 87 million tonnes of fish – more than the global fish harvest itself.

But marine biologist Kristin Kaschner at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver dismisses such figures as misleading.

In a survey last year, she found that 80 percent of the world’s fish catch by humans takes place in regions where there are very few marine mammals – and that 99 percent of marine mammal feeding takes place in zones where there is very little human fishing.

In other words: the whales are not our competitors for food, except possibly in some small local fishing grounds, she said.

The other Japanese argument is that rising populations of some whale species, such as minkes, should be culled because they are depleting supplies of krill for endangered counterparts, such as the blue whale.

This notion of ecosystem management is derided by conservationists as unilateral, crudely simplistic, based on unpublished or unreviewed data – and also potentially perilous.

Long experience in fisheries management, notably stocks of cod in the North Atlantic, shows that an entire food web can be badly damaged if you touch just one strand.

The commentary in Nature, published by four marine biologists from Japan, Australia and the United States, poured scorn on Japan’s “lethal sampling,” whereby rare whales would be killed in order to get tissues for DNA tests which reveal population structures.

Such samples can easily be obtained by dart gun, without the whale having to be slain.

In the past, the consequences of Japan’s whaling “were limited to political frustration,” the commentary said.

“But with Japan’s proposed escalation in the number of species and individual whales to be sampled, and without any regulatory process to manage these catches, the consequences for whale populations may well be more serious.”

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